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Variability in assessor responses to undergraduate essays

An issue for assessment quality in higher education

Sally Roisin O'Hagan

Academic standards in higher education depend on the judgements of individual academics assessing student work; it is in these micro-level practices that the validity and fairness of assessment is constituted. However, the quality of assessments of open-ended tasks like the coursework essay is difficult to ascertain because of the complex and subjective nature of the judgements involved. In view of current concerns about assessment quality and standards, this book is a timely reflection on the practices of academic judgement at university. It explores assessment quality through an empirical study of essay marking in an undergraduate discipline where large class sizes and significant numbers of second language students are common. The study shows that assessors vary in their interpretations of criteria and standards and that this results in inconsistent grading of essays. The book contributes to a growing scholarship of assessment with an evidence-based explanation of why assessors disagree and a discussion of the implications of this for the validity of assessment practices at university.
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6. Conclusion



In light of widespread concerns about the quality of assessment in HE (Knight, 2002a), this investigation of micro-level marking practices in an undergraduate university discipline sought to explore the impact of student language background on the assessment of student essays. To do this, a study was carried out to compare the responses of university assessors to two types of student essays – NS and NNS – in terms of the evaluative verbal commentary made about the essays and the marks awarded to them.

6.1Summary of findings

The results showed firstly, that the marks for the NS essays tended to be slightly higher, and the comments more frequently positive and primarily focussed on content, while for the NNS essays, the marks tended to be lower, and the comments more frequently negative and focussed more on expression (specifically, grammatical accuracy) than was the case for the NS essays. The attention given to essay content for the NS essays is in line with much of the previous research on writing assessment in disciplinary contexts (Bridgeman and Carlson, 1983; Bush, 1997; Casanave and Hubbard, 1992), while the negative focus on grammatical accuracy for the NNS essays shows that NNS grammatical errors were salient to the assessors. Clearly, the greater tendency for negative commentary on the NNS essays is reflected in the lower marks; however, the extent to which assessors’ overall judgements were influenced by the grammatical errors they noticed is uncertain. Therefore, this study has no answers for Rosenthal...

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